The San Juan portion of the Spanish Valley is approximately 6-miles long and 2.5-miles wide, encompassing 15-square miles of land. In comparison, the entire Spanish Valley is approximately 15-miles long and 3- miles wide. Credit: San Juan County Spanish Valley Area Plan

As a slideshow presentation projected an image of a Whole Foods market in a future plan for Spanish Valley, whispers among local residents crept across the room during the San Juan County Planning Commission meeting on April 3.

It was standing room only at the meeting, which was held at the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency on Spanish Trail Road in Grand County for the benefit of those residents who reside near where the plan would be developed on the San Juan County side of the Grand and San Juan border.

The San Juan County Planning Commission has held other meetings on the plan in San Juan County, but several locals at the April 3 meeting said the San Juan County Planning Commission coming to Grand County to host a meeting is an unprecedented and “historic” move.

A woman near the front of the room shook her head and placed her hand on her cane as the woman beside her also shook her head in disbelief. “A Whole Foods store?” another resident whispered. Currently, the rural area being discussed is zoned primarily for agriculture. The nearest Whole Foods market location is a one-way drive of more than 200 miles.

It was not the only moment during the hours-long planning meeting that surprised local residents as the planning agenda for 3.7-million-square-feet in northern San Juan County unfolded on the screen.

The agenda is for San Juan County to work in collaboration with the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) to create what documents state is a “Planned Community” in Spanish Valley. People in Grand County, including the former mayor of Moab, have been calling the planned community for Spanish Valley “Moab South.”

Looks of surprise were shared among residents when the plans and ordinances being shown in the presentation described that the maximum building height for development in Spanish Valley would be 120 feet. People looked at each other and asked, “How many stories is that? 14? 12?” A Grand County first responder reacted by reading a section of the plan that says San Juan County will not build additional fire service agencies and will rely on “existing” fire and medical services in the valley, all of which come from Grand County. The first responder said Grand County does not have the resources to cover the proposed planned community. The San Juan County Commission said building heights would ultimately depend on the fire department’s capacities.

Other moments of surprise were in response to plans to widen Spanish Valley Drive to three lanes and create shopping centers along the route where locals would go to do their shopping at instead of in Moab.

“They’re trying to tell us where to do our shopping!” one woman said with surprise as she turned to the person seated next to her. They both shook their heads.

Moab City Mayor Emily Niehaus and Moab City Council member Karen Guzman-Newton were seated on the floor during the meeting, and former Castle Valley Mayor Dave Erley stood near the back of the room where Sharon Brussell and other representatives of dark sky initiatives were standing.

The largest round of applause came when Erley addressed the planning commission on water rights and said there is no water available in the valley for the planned community development. He called the plan “dumb” and said SITLA is acting as if it’s a private corporation without regard to water planning and management.

Langianese and others spoke about the need for San Juan County to have an ordinance for lighting to protect the area’s dark skies. An ordinance had been on the planning commission’s agenda, but was later removed. The San Juan County Planning Commission said they would reconsider dark skies and put the ordinance back on its agenda for future consideration.

Residents on Sunny Acres Lane asked the planning commission and SITLA why it’s selling the property bordering their neighborhood for a Love’s Travel Stop. Several people asked for the planning commission and SITLA to change its plan and move the truck stop to an area away from the existing homes where children and elderly live, for fear of the prostitution, drugs and increased crime regularly associated with truck stops.

Standing outside of the meeting room, San Juan County Administrative Officer Kelly Pehrson listened in on the public hearing, and at one point looked at Bryan Torgerson, a SITLA resource specialist for the Moab area, and said, “They want to decide what businesses can be here.”

Moab Chamber of Commerce President Brendan Cameron expressed concern at the planning commission’s communication with residents, and said that he and others feel that the commercial plans, such as for the truck stop, have been abruptly added into the design plans for northern San Juan County with little to no public notice or input.

One resident of northern San Juan County said she had talked with her neighbors and determined that the planning commission lied when it said it notified area residents by mail over plans for development.

“It’s quite surprising,” another resident said to the planning commission. “because you already have a community here that people created. That community is going to be taken away from them, essentially, and reshaped according to your new ordinances. That’s a lot to ask of people. And I guess what I would query you about is, if people in this community don’t want their community to be reshaped for them, if they like it the way it is, are those wishes going to be respected?”

To which the San Juan County Planning Commission responded by saying that it can’t answer that question.

Correction: A Moab Sun News article on April 11 incorrectly identified a speaker on dark skies at the San Juan County Planning Commission as executive director of Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks Joette Langianese. The speaker was Sharon Brussell. The Moab Sun News regrets the error.

SITLA creates futuristic planned city center in Spanish Valley near Grand and San Juan border